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How women can succeed by rethinking old habits

Female professionals looking to their next promotion or job should identify the self-limiting behaviors that may stand in their way. See also “The Habits that Slow Down Women’s Careers.”

A version of this article appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of strategy+business.

This article is excerpted from How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Jobby Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith. Copyright © 2018 by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith. Reprinted with permission from Hachette Books. All rights reserved.

Ellen is a software engineer for a booming Silicon Valley company that has made a high-profile commitment to developing women. She’s a talented engineer, but is also more outgoing, empathetic, and socially skilled than many of her colleagues. As a result, she’s been able to build unusually broad connections during the three years she’s been with her company. She describes herself as a “go-to person,” a fulcrum around which relationships form. Coworkers frequently email her with queries or requests for help.

Because Ellen takes pride in her connectedness and sees it as an essential aspect of the value she provides, she was stunned when, during her annual performance review, her boss made the point in an otherwise excellent assessment that “she needs to get better known in the organization, have more of a presence, and more actively promote what our division is doing.” Says Ellen, “I couldn’t believe it. The very thing I’ve always thought I was best at, and he’s telling me I fall short! He even makes it the center of his critique.” Having her efforts and skills go unacknowledged made Ellen feel unseen and undervalued, stuck in a thankless role working for an ungrateful boss. “I really felt hurt,” she says. “How could he not recognize what I contribute?”

It wasn’t until a few months after the review, when she heard a career coach talking about the need to actively bring attention to the value you provide, that Ellen realized what had happened. “I saw there was a very simple reason he had overlooked my role as a connector: I had never told him what I was doing. I’d never mentioned all the people I connected with in the course of the day or the week or the month. I’d just somehow expected him to know. But he didn’t monitor my email, he didn’t stand at my office door watching who came in and out, so he had no way of knowing how many people I was in touch with.”

Everyone has self-limiting behaviors; this is simply part of being human. But our combined six decades of professional experience coaching and working with women in virtually every sector have taught us that even women at the highest levels can undermine themselves with specific self-sabotaging behaviors that are different from those that most frequently undermine men.

Of course, not all women are alike. Nor are all men. Gender is only one factor in determining how each of us responds to feedback, observations, suggestions, or critiques. That said, women often face various external barriers as they seek to advance in their career, which shape their experience of work. Take that well-known phenomenon of “speaking while female.” A number of studies confirm the truth of a common female perception: Men often have trouble hearing women when they speak. Because experience shapes behavior, repeatedly having your voice ignored may begin to influence how you respond, even when people are hanging on your every word. And your responses, over time, become habits.

The good news is that your behaviors lie within your control, whereas external forces such as unconscious bias may not. For example, research has shown that when being considered for a promotion, women are most likely to be evaluated based on their contributions, whereas men are most likely to be evaluated based on their potential — nebulous criteria that can result in a less qualified man getting the job. If your company uses criteria that subtly penalize women, you can be a voice for pointing this out and work with HR to explore alternatives. But it’s difficult to persuade your company to immediately jettison how it evaluates performance.

What you can do to seriously strengthen your chances of success is uproot an unhelpful habit, behavior, or attitude you’ve picked up over the course of your working life. At a minimum, making the effort should improve your daily experience of work and better prepare you to reach your goals in the future. Take Ellen, whose first engineering job was at a startup led by a famously self-promotional lone wolf. There, she benefited by never singing her own praises or talking up what she was doing. However, she now works for a large company in which every division must compete for airtime. In these circumstances, her established practice of not wasting her boss’s time by talking to him about what she’s achieving ends up working to her disadvantage. It didn’t occur to Ellen to give her boss the details about how she was connecting with people in the company because she’d gotten in the habit of not talking about herself. Keeping her head down had become her go-to response.

To let go of a behavior that is no longer serving you, you need first to recognize it as a habit. You need to bring it to conscious awareness so you can begin to try out new responses and see if they get you different results. This can feel awkward and even dangerous. It can make you feel vulnerable, foolish, and exposed. But we have seen it work — thousands of times. When it does, it unleashes energy and confidence. And that energy makes it easier to stay with the effort.

The State of Being Stuck

How do you know if you’re stuck? Stuckness usually manifests itself in different ways that are nevertheless interconnected: You feel something is preventing you from moving forward or leading the life you’re supposed to be living, you feel unable to break through circumstances that are conspiring to hold you down, you feel as if your contributions are not recognized or appreciated. You feel that the people around you have no idea what you’re capable of achieving.

Even women at the highest levels can undermine themselves with specific self-sabotaging behaviors that are different from those that most frequently undermine men.

Stuckness can seem circumstantial, the result of your situation or the fault of someone who has power or leverage over you. And this perception may reflect a degree of truth. But it’s also helpful to consider the ways you might be keeping yourself stuck. After all, your responses help shape your circumstances, and your behaviors shape how others respond to you. That’s why being able to identify these behaviors is so important.

In addition to feeling situational, stuckness can feel deeply embedded. As you become habituated to certain behaviors, you may start assuming they are intrinsic to your character. So if you hang back from an opportunity because you dislike speaking before large crowds, you may rationalize that you’ve always been this way, even in grade school when you were among the last to raise your hand.

This is why approaching change from a purely psychological perspective can be daunting. You have to work through all the layers and experiences that have habituated your responses: It’s a time-consuming exercise that can be paralyzing and often requires professional guidance. But approaching behavioral change by substituting new habits for old ones is empowering. It’s also something you can do on your own, without help from a therapist or coach.

The thing about habits is that they tend to hang around even when the conditions that got them started no longer exist. That’s why spending time trying to figure out why you have them is usually not the most fruitful approach. You have those habits because you’ve followed them repeatedly in the past. In other words, your habits are not you. They are you on autopilot. When you’re on autopilot, you are not really thinking about this situation, this moment, this challenge, or the specific response your circumstances require. You’re just reacting in a way that has become comfortable for you over time. Your brain saves energy this way. But you’re not really present for what you are doing, which is why you are not considering whether your behavior is serving you now.

The Art of Self-Promotion

When female professionals are asked to reflect on why they are reluctant to claim their achievements, answers vary. But among the most common is some variation of the following: “If I have to act like that obnoxious blowhard down the hall to get noticed around here, I’d prefer to be ignored. I have no desire to behave like that jerk.” Since the thought of emulating an insufferable colleague’s behavior is repellent, a woman may keep her head down instead of looking for ways to get recognized for her contributions.

There are two problems with this approach. First, citing the jerk down the hall as an example of everything you are not and don’t wish to become indicates an either/or way of thinking. Either you exemplify the worst aspects of a given behavior or you behave in an entirely different manner. Either/or thinking sees no possibility of a middle ground — no graceful way, for example, to bring attention to the quality of your work without becoming obnoxious and self-serving — and that thinking then justifies your refusal to do so.

Second, contrasting your refusal to claim credit for your own good work with an extreme opposite example can inspire you to feel morally superior to anyone who is comfortable taking credit. This is unhelpful, because it is ultimately a rationale for staying in your comfort zone. Instead of asking yourself why you have trouble bringing attention to your successes and then figuring out an appropriate way to do so, you congratulate yourself for being a wonderful human being who doesn’t need to toot her own horn. And then you try to take solace in that when you’re passed over for the next promotion.

Reluctance to claim achievements is common among women in every sector and at every level. But the costs will be highest when you’re trying to move to the next level or seeking a new job. Speaking up about what you contribute and detailing why you’re qualified does not make you self-centered or self-serving. It sends a signal that you’re ready to rise. Yet search firms confirm that women applying for jobs are often less assertive than men when it comes to declaring their qualifications.

If you want to reach your highest potential, making your achievements visible, especially to those at senior levels, is as important as the actual tasks spelled out in your job description. If you don’t find a way to speak about the value of what you’re doing, you send a message that you don’t put much value on it. And if you don’t value it, why should anyone else? You also communicate that you may be ambivalent about getting ahead. And if you’re ambivalent, why should anyone stick his or her neck out to support you?

If you’re considering how you might promote yourself, it helps to bear in mind that you are your own primary product. As you talk about what you have achieved, you are always selling you — not just the details but the overall package. People buy what you’re selling because they like and trust you, and because they believe that what you offer may have value for them. Why do they believe this? Because you so obviously do. Mesmerizing belief in the product is the secret of every great salesperson.

If claiming your achievements feels like a new behavior for you, you might want to try enlisting a colleague to help you. For example, you might start by simply asking a peer who worked with you on a successful venture to speak a bit on your behalf the next time you’re in a meeting. It might not be boldly taking the initiative yourself, but it will be a step.

A Clear Vision of the Future

The flip side of being reluctant to claim your accomplishments is expecting others to notice your contributions without your having to draw attention to them yourself. These two behaviors work together. They have similar roots but different effects.

The belief that “great work should speak for itself” or “if I do an outstanding job, people should notice” can serve as a convenient excuse for refusing to claim your achievements, letting you off the hook (in your own mind, at least) if advocating for yourself makes you feel awkward. This is what happened to Ellen, who was devastated when her boss failed to notice the connections she had built in the company, even though he had no way of knowing how many people she routinely reached out to.

Expecting others to notice and reward your contributions, or believing that they should, not only is a good way to keep yourself stuck, but also can diminish the satisfaction you feel in a job you would otherwise enjoy. You may start to resent not just the higher-ups who seem unaware of all the hard work you do, but also colleagues who are skilled at getting noticed. You may then decide they’re just showboats and congratulate yourself on being less self-centered, even as you stay in the shadows. If you get entrenched in this kind of negative thinking, you may start believing you don’t really belong in your job. After all, if the people around you are incapable of noticing your efforts, maybe you’d be better off somewhere else. This is how a job that seemed like a perfect fit when you started it begins to lose its attraction.

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How do you begin taking responsibility for ensuring your work gets noticed? How do you draw attention to what you contribute without feeling like a jerk? You might start by articulating a vision of where you would like your job to take you so you can give people a context for what you want in your future. Renowned management writer Peter Drucker said you should be able to fit your mission statement on a T-shirt. Creating a so-called elevator speech that explains how you view your career path can pay many dividends. It can help you think more clearly about your future. It can make you feel more confident and prepared. It can mark you as serious, a potential player, someone to watch. And it’s perfect for moving beyond the passive trap of hoping to be noticed.

A crystal-clear sense of what you’re trying to do and why you are motivated to do it enables you to speak your truth powerfully and concisely. Further, it helps you clarify which opportunities you want to embrace and which you should let go of. You simply ask yourself, Would doing this help me reach my larger goal? If so, you might want to say yes. If not, you have a solid reason for saying no.

The Limits of Expertise

Trying to master every detail of your job in order to become an expert is a great strategy for keeping the job you have. But if your goal is to move to a higher level, your expertise is probably not going to get you there. In fact, such mastery often serves to trap you in your current role.

If you find that statement shocking, it may be because, like many other women, you’ve assumed expertise is the surest route to success. And so you put enormous effort into learning every aspect of your job and ensuring that your work is letter-perfect. This feels proactive, but it can set you up to remain on an endless treadmill, constantly setting a higher bar for yourself as you seek to always go the extra mile.

Meanwhile, most of your male colleagues are taking a different route, trying to do the job well enough while focusing their time on building the relationships and visibility that will get them to the next level. Of course, we’re not advocating sloppy performance. And we know that skill and knowledge are required for success. But if you want to rise in your field or your organization, expertise will take you only so far. That’s because the top jobs always require managing and leading people who have expertise, not providing expertise yourself.

When you’re routinely under-recognized, expertise can become a defense, your way of asserting your value regardless of what others perceive or think. Being intrinsic, mastery is one source of satisfaction you can control. This is a good thing, and can be deeply rewarding. But learning every detail to perfection uses up a lot of bandwidth, leaving you little time to develop the relationships you need to move ahead. Moreover, your efforts to do everything perfectly usually have the effect of demonstrating that you’re perfect for the job you already have. And the expertise you develop may make you indispensable to your boss, who will quite logically want to keep you where you are.

According to engineer Ted Jenkins, one of Intel’s earliest hires, there are four kinds of power in organizations. The first is the power of expertise. Because expertise is required for success, demonstrating it can become a competitive sport. But cultivating expertise at the expense of other kinds of power will not position you as a leader.

The second kind of power is the power of connections. Connections are usually built as you move around in the company, hold different jobs, find allies, and stay in touch. Getting to know people in your industry or sector as well as key clients and movers in your community is also important. Connections serve as a kind of currency you can use to get resources moving and ensure that your contributions get noticed.

The third kind of power is the power of personal authority or charisma, which is rooted in the confidence you inspire in others. You rarely start your career with much personal authority; it builds as your reputation develops over time. Personal authority is what sets the most successful leaders apart.

The fourth kind of power is the power of position, or where you stand in the organization. The person who holds positional power gets to make the key decisions. This reality often infuriates experts, who believe their insights should count for more when it comes to making decisions. Perhaps they should, but they rarely do. Positional power is most effective when supported by the power of personal authority. Without it, others may not trust their leader’s decisions.

Jenkins’s template can be helpful if you have a history of overvaluing expertise. Expertise, connections, and personal authority are all non-positional kinds of power you can nurture and practice throughout your career. The more you develop these complementary powers, the more prepared you’ll be to assume positional power.

Avoiding the Perfection Trap

In our experience, women are especially vulnerable to the perfection trap, the belief that they will succeed if they do their job perfectly and never mess anything up. Although women in general tend to be seen as better leaders than men, they are often undermined by their tendency to give themselves a hard time, a habit rooted in the desire to be perfect. The result is that even high-achieving women tend to take failures deeply to heart, get tangled up in self-blame, and stew over mistakes instead of moving on.

The fear of making mistakes is compounded by the fact that women’s mistakes are often viewed more critically in male-dominated organizational cultures. Your errors may be seized on as proof that women in general can’t make the grade, which can affect how other women in the company are viewed. This compounds the guilt you feel over having made a mistake — and over not being perfect.

The process is intensified if you’re a minority. In the United States, African-American women often feel the burden of carrying the expectations of their entire community on their shoulders, as do immigrants from many cultures in Europe, Latin America, and Asia. If you’re in one of these situations, learning to let go of the desire to be perfect assumes a special urgency.

Perfectionists usually struggle with delegation. If you have super-exacting standards, it stands to reason that you would have difficulty letting others do their job. And because monitoring people’s efforts is time-consuming and often fraught, you just may decide that it’s easier and quicker to do the job yourself.

The upshot is that you end up loading extra tasks onto your already-too-full plate. Yet willingness to delegate will become ever more important as you move to higher levels. You will have more people to manage, more of whom have specialized skills and knowledge. If you try to do their job for them, you’ll be eaten alive. So if “it’s easier to do it myself” is your automatic response, you might want to consider that you are undermining your potential as a leader, as well as taking on a lot of extra work.

In order to rise, you have to lay your burden down. Risk taking requires being open to failure. Although risk must be thoughtfully assessed, the outcome is never assured or entirely within your control. The desire to be perfect, by contrast, keeps you focused on what you can control. This narrows your horizons and demonstrates insecurity instead of the confidence in the future that’s needed if you are to be an effective leader.

If you have perfectionist tendencies, you can best serve your long-term interests by learning to delegate, prioritize, and be comfortable taking measured risks. This will create a less stressful environment — for you and for others — and demonstrate your readiness to move forward.

The Power to Change

Once Ellen, the Silicon Valley engineer, got over her hurt and realized that her boss did not see her as a connector because she had failed to let him know what she was doing, she was able to swing into action. She spent exactly zero time wondering why her boss hadn’t noticed her. She worked in a unit of several thousand people, and she didn’t really see him all that much. Almost all his direct reports were men, so he may have been uncomfortable with women — she really had no way of knowing. But she didn’t focus on trying to find out. Instead, she asked herself how her own behavior might be contributing to his evaluation and what she could do to change it.

She decided to email him a brief note every Friday morning for three months listing all the people she’d talked to and noting how she had been able to help them. She didn’t tell him what she was going to do or ask if she should do it. She just went ahead. She says, “I felt pretty ridiculous at first. I kept thinking, He’s busy; why should I keep bothering him to talk about myself? I felt self-serving, sucking up a lot of airtime to continually make the point about how connected I was. When I didn’t hear back from him — which was usually — I wondered if he was [silently] sending me a message that this wasn’t useful. But every once in a while, he’d shoot me an email saying ‘good work!’ And that kept me going.”

At the end of the three months, Ellen and her boss had their quarterly meeting. As she entered his office, he came forward to greet her instead of remaining at his desk, as was his habit. “The first thing he said was how happy he was that I was letting him know who I was keeping in touch with. He said it was important; it was information he needed to know. He told me my connections were strengthening our team — which meant I was strengthening him. I’d never thought of it that way, but I realized it was true.” By recognizing the role she was playing in her own circumstances and identifying the specific behaviors that had undermined her, Ellen was able to get herself unstuck and gain greater recognition for her work as well.

Ellen’s story illustrates people’s capacity for change. You might be wondering how, if experience shapes behavior, you are supposed to let go of habits and responses that have become ingrained over years or even decades in the workplace. Isn’t there truth in the familiar adage that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”? The good news is that we now know the old-dog adage doesn’t apply to humans. It doesn’t even apply to dogs!

Until recently, brain researchers believed that only children’s neural systems had the capacity to change by growing the new circuits that new skills and new behaviors require. But functional MRIs (fMRIs), which allow neuroscientists to view the brain in operation, instead confirm that the brain retains the capacity to build fresh neural pathways at every stage of healthy adulthood. As a result, you can rewire your brain to support new habits and thought patterns at any time during your life. The only catch is that you must be willing to repeat these new behaviors until your brain gets comfortable with them. That’s because behaviors and thoughts build new pathways only when repeated over time. With practice, they become established and begin to operate by default.

Even people who have suffered profound trauma can heal by repeating habits and thoughts that counteract established responses. This principle of neuroplasticity means that you have the ability to change how you respond to situations. Past experiences may shape your behavior, but they need not determine it. You have the power to become more precise, more intentional, more present, more assertive, more autonomous, more at ease exercising authority, more confident setting boundaries, and more effective at advocating for yourself. All these riches lie within your capacity and scope. But the process can’t start until you identify those habits that hold you back, and start practicing new habits that better serve you.

Of course, it’s important to bear in mind that every limiting behavior is also rooted in a strength. Your strengths are what got you where you are, and you will benefit from maintaining a healthy respect for what you have achieved. For example, a reluctance to claim your achievements is rooted in genuine modesty and a generous willingness to acknowledge the achievements of others, just as expecting others to spontaneously notice and reward your contributions is rooted in the perception that because you notice what others contribute, other people should, too. Overvaluing expertise is rooted in a healthy respect for all the skills your job requires and the willingness to work hard to master them. And the perfection trap is rooted in the desire not to disappoint others, along with a commitment to making the world a better place.

You see the pattern here. Certain characteristics emerge: diligence, conscientiousness, a concern for the feelings and contributions of others, and a reluctance to join the “it’s all about me” competition that characterizes life and politics in many organizations. These characteristics are good. They are gifts you bring to the world, and they surely have contributed to your success. You don’t want to leave these strengths behind as you move higher and expand your scope.

Nevertheless, fulfilling your potential is bound to take you beyond your comfort zone, and examining how your strengths may also undermine you is one aspect of that. That’s why you’ll want to celebrate the skills, talents, attitudes, and behaviors that have brought you to where you are, even as you identify and work to surmount self-limiting behaviors that won’t get you where you want to go.

Author profiles:

  • Sally Helgesen is an author, speaker, and leadership consultant. Her books include The Female Vision, The Female Advantage, and The Web of Inclusion. She is a contributing editor to strategy+business.
  • Marshall Goldsmith is a renowned educator and executive coach. Two of his books, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There and Triggers, are ranked by Amazon in the top 100 books in the leadership and success category.
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